In a world where the scientific worldview is considered to be ultimate, the study of symbols, stories, and myths is looked down upon. Facts, information, and data are considered superior to stories; we are told that the real world is made of atoms and particles—measurable stuff.
On the other hand, in New Age circles, there is a sort of pagan revival of symbols; a certain naive appreciation of ancient symbolism. People tattoo themselves with celtic ruins, become ‘Tibetan Buddhists’ meditating on exotic deities, engage in Tarot, and read Joseph Campbell, who ascribes a certain universalism to ancient stories.
What is going on? Society today is polarized between an all-too-literal factual scientism and a gnostic fantasy of do-it-yourself spirituality. On one side, you have the materialists who believe only in mechanical processes and atoms, and on the other gnostic dualists who believe that the material world is a sinful illusion to be transcended.
All this comes after the total collapse of grand narratives and symbolic systems, both secular and religious, in the wake of what 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called ‘The Death of God’. Nietzsche was not celebrating a new era of enlightenment as many people falsely believe: he understood that by killing off the highest meaning principle in the west, we would ‘never wash the blood from our hands’. Nietzsche saw the abyss that arises when we trade our deep symbolic traditions for shallow and fashionable ideologies. He prophesied Nazi German, the gulags of China and Russia, and the other genocides of the 20th Century.
Today, in the 21st Century, we are deep in what John Vervaeke has called ‘The Meaning Crisis’, a crisis where we no longer have the symbolic tools to understand our world. Narcissism, solipsism, depression, and anxiety are the fate of those who are possessed by symbols and archetypes which they do not understand. With ‘no heaven above’ and ‘no hell below’—to quote the John Lennon song—there is nothing to believe in except ‘the self’. In other words, many can no longer locate themselves in a larger cosmic reality, let alone a community or tribe, and therefore people find themselves atomized, isolated, and alone. In a society that considers itself to be rational and beyond the symbolic world view, symbolism still happens, as Jonathan Pageau has pointed out in his work on The Symbolic World.
Today we see a lot of dystopian symbols bubbling up in the popular consciousness. Think of recent eruptions of pagan religiosity such as the Qanon ‘shaman’, who stormed the capital building in the US, dressed in facepaint, furs, a spear, and animal horns. This symbolism, for those who can read it, indicated a certain savage animality and nostalgia for a more tribal world, where magic and what Lévy-Bruhl called ‘participation mystique’ are still present.
In an atomized society without religion, people will reach for all kinds of pseudo religions and ideologies. And, as Jonathan Pageau tells us, as society becomes more fragmented, the symbolic organization of the world becomes inverted 1. In such a world the marginal becomes the center, and the center becomes the marginal, and nothing is what it seems to be. Without symbolic guidance or understanding we find ourselves living in parody of civilization, or what has been called the ‘upside-down clown world’.
In ancient Greece a symbol meant to ‘gather’ meaning—only later did it come to mean ‘something which stands for something else’. Symbolic ‘gathering’ is what we do when we create language, mathematics, and art; it is how we build knowledge, history and culture. The symbol situates us in time and space, gives us direction and identity, allows us to communicate complex things to each other. Without symbolic understanding we have no distance from the world or ability to reflect on it—we have no future or past. We are reduced to instinct and animality.
Whether we like it or not, we are immersed in the collective symbolic history and paradigm of our culture. As Carl Jung has pointed out, symbols possess us, we do not master them 2. A powerful symbol affects us at a pre-verbal, subconscious level, and informs our worldviews at an early age. If, for instance, we are brought up on Christian symbols and later become atheist, the Christian worldview will continue to haunt us with its symbols and meanings, no matter how post-religious we think we are. It is therefore essential to be aware of what archetypes and ideas are governing our actions and to avoid being unconsciously possessed by them. We need to know what symbols mean as much as we need to know about the atom—or perhaps even more so.
Symbols have power—to gather meaning but also to deceive us. We can use symbols to hypnotize or brainwash populations but also create poetry and music. Symbolic power can be wielded by a Mozart or a Machiavelli, Jack the Ripper or Jesus. All that is creative and potentially demonic within us is related to our use and abuse of symbols; abstraction and reflection through symbolism is both the blessing and the curse of a human being.
The gathering power of a symbol can be observed in all walks of life, from The Star of David, to the swastika, to the Nike logo. Symbols are a kind of icon, a portal into a larger reality. People use them as a mark of religious identification, tribalism, and ideologies of all kinds. An advertising logo, for instance, is a profane symbol that indicates status, wealth, and power. Furthermore, everyone gathers around their pet symbols: Christians around The Cross, shoppers around the handbag, pagans around the oak tree. The Nazis employed terrifying symbolic displays such as light shows and midnight rallies to hypnotize a whole population into a frenzy of bloodlust and hatred.
Symbolic literacy is necessary to understand what is going on today, and to avoid conflagrations of violence and scapegoating in the name of backwards and unconscious mythology. From the red maga hat of the Trump supporter, to the yellow vest of french protesters, to the donkey of the democratic party—symbols are not arbitrary and have intense power of communication and hypnosis, as everyone in the advertising industry knows.
The popular stories and symbols of our time—as Jonathan Pageau has shown—are so often an expression of collective movements in culture. The zombie, for instance, is a symbol of consumer nihilism, and Joker is a symbol of the atomized and parentless individual who becomes a lone terrorist3. These symbolic characters, known as archetypes, ‘bubble up from the collective unconscious’ as Carl Jung put it; they give us clues and warnings about our culture.
In a world where religious liturgy and practice is lacking, popular art, politics, and popular culture supplant religion; Marvel films and rock concerts substitute the participation mystique and meaning usually found in religious ritual and stories. And, as Pageau has pointed out, the popular zombie processions fulfill a religious and liturgical need—even if they are quite meaningless in themselves. Similarly, fiction and fantasy stories might not be literally real in terms of a collection of facts, but they are hyperreal—compressed reality—they operate through symbol and metaphor.
Even in science, symbolism abounds. As John Vervaeke has pointed out in his series Awakening from The Meaning Crisis 4, a drawing of an atom doesn’t resemble a real atom a bit—it is also a symbolic representation. Facts and objects have no meaning in themselves, but are animated through stories and symbols—and scientific descriptions are no exception; furthermore, the fiery discourses of the new atheist are full of mythos and religiosity. The truth is that symbolism ‘happens’ in science, art, and spirituality. The world is made of stories and symbols much or more than atoms and molecules.
In the beginning was the Logos
In the Christian bible John says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. The Word—which is perhaps better left untranslated as the logos—is the way that the creative principle manifests itself. Whether we believe in God or not, we can notice that our ability to create order from chaos through naming and ordering things is our unique creative gift as humans. We become godly—or potentially demonic—by giving symbolic meaning to our world.
The Logos gathers meaning into more and more complex symbols, which we use to communicate and create: lines become letters that become words and sentences that fit into paragraphs—paragraphs become books. From the logos something is created from nothing; complexity, relevance, and coherence emerge from a swirling and undifferentiated chaos.
In recent times, however, there has been much attempt to deconstruct the logos—or the symbolic systems—of western civilization. Jacques Derrida has said that the West is ‘phallo-logo-centric’—in other words governed by a masculine dominance hierarchy and the biblical Judeo-Christian grand narrative. Today it is fashionable to undermine that narrative, but also to undermine western science and history. But deconstructionism has gone too far. Certainly, there is very good reason to deconstruct triumphalist narratives of colonialism, slavery, and misogyny; on the other hand, if we simply tear down the logos what will remain but chaos?
We now live in a multipolar world—a global village or theater—with all the world’s religions and symbolic systems available to us. Surely we need to study these religions, cultures, and their symbols—rather than just tear them down. And we also need to understand what William Blake called ‘The Great Code’ of our own western culture. In other words, we need to at least know how the underlying western metaphysics operates within us.
Extreme deconstructionism has left us in a void of meaning or an ‘age of anxiety’ and more in need of the logos than ever. Today we need to return to the primary symbols of our civilization, with a new constructive attitude, which means renewing ancient meanings for the present, without falling into new age relativism. We can’t just adopt symbolic systems wily-nily, we have to find coherence or logos and living traditions. For this we do need the rational scientific spirit, but also the religious, artistic, and symbolic mind, which requires more than just our logical brain (logos is a lot more than logic)—but the part of our consciousness that understands metaphor, nuance, and symbol.
Conclusion: Madness and meaning
The danger of symbols is that they become reified and triumphalist; dark symbolic systems come to be in service of negative power hierarchies. A life-generating symbol however is transparent, dynamic, and alive rather than static and opaque; it must exist within a coherent ecosystem of meaning.
In my view, if a symbolic system is old enough to have stood the test of time, it has more weight and value. Personally, I am fond of studying Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian symbolism. I have spent years meditating on the first few stories of genesis, which I find endlessly deep. The story of the fall from the garden of Eden, of Cain and Abel, of Noah, the Ark, and the flood—are bottomless in meaning and insight. These old stories contain truths deeper than any modern ideology as evidenced by their enduring power, and constant ability to reinvent themselves as relevant in any and all times.
While the Egyptians and the Romans built civilizations that now are in ruins, the Jews wrote a book. This book will remain after all the skyscrapers of America fall, perhaps at the end of the world. William Blake called this book ‘The Great Code of Art’. And to understand our world, to renew the ‘art of living’, we need to meditate on our great code of symbols. We need to become symbolically literate again.
Andrew Sweeny’s blog on Parallax: https://parallax-media.eu/andrew-sweeny
Parallax Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCN06e1C9M4mMffP5OIgTJtg
Note: First published on Maniphesto here: https://www.maniphesto.com/post/the-death-of-god-and-the-need-for-symbolic-literacy
- Pageau, Jonathan. “The Metaphysics of Clown World,” Youtube, April, 2019.
- Jung, C.G.. Four Archetypes, Routledge, 2017
- Vervaeke, John and David Chapman. “Unpacking The Meaning Crisis,” Letter (”https://letter.wiki/conversation/209), October, 2019. Pageau, Jonathan. “The Zombie Apocalypse is already here,” Youtube, February 2020
- Vervaeke, John. “Awakening from The Meaning Crisis,” Youtube, January 2019.